Saturday, 15 October 2016

How many more babies will die before we protect them from dog attacks?

The following blog was published as an article in today's Independent:

Four month old Archie Darby was mauled to death by a dog, thought to be a Staffordshire bull terrier, on Thursday. His 22 month old brother Daniel is fighting for his life. In August, 3 year old Dexter Neal was killed in a savage attack by an American Pitbull. A neighbour reported hearing “agonising screams” through the wall. In 2012, eight-day-old Harry Harper died after being bitten by the family's Jack Russell – the same breed of dog that killed 3 week old Reggie Blacklin in 2011. The list is long and distressing.

There have been 18 deaths from dog attacks in the past four years alone. Many of the victims were children. The traditional hand wringing, furrowed browed, empty rhetoric has, unsurprisingly, failed to prevent these atrocities from continuing to befall our children. At what point do the reactionary headlines and soundbites become steps to protect our children from further attacks?

When I was 3, I watched helplessly as my 2 year old brother was attacked by a dog. It was a beloved docile family pet - a border collie.  He just snapped. The vet informed us a tumour was the most likely reason for the uncharacteristic behaviour and warned that dogs are “never completely safe” around children.

Every time I hear news of another child being mauled by a dog, it triggers that latent trauma. Becoming a mother exposed the extent of my anxiety and, as a therapist, I know that irrational fears can be passed onto children who, in turn, become prisoners to them. I struggled to reconcile my maternal instincts to scoop my toddler up when approached by dogs in the park, and not wanting to inflict my “neurosis” on him.

Dog owners would reassure me that their dog was harmless and I would apologetically explain the source of my “hang-up”. By not being hostile, most dog owners were sympathetic and put their dogs on a lead when they saw us coming. It’s the irresponsible dog owners that are the blight of common public places.

Like the one who was nowhere to be seen when their large Labrador came bounding towards us, jumped at my two year old and knocked him flat on his back. When the owner finally caught up, her response to my bawling toddler was, “There’s no need to cry, he wouldn’t hurt you”. She failed to grasp that her dog had hurt my toddler. “How would you feel”, I replied, “if a giant bear pounced on you, knocking you to the ground”?  

Every time I lowered my guard, something else would happen. Like the time my husband was bitten on the ankle by a small yakking dog whose owner had only just said he wouldn’t hurt a fly. It turned out the dog had bitten several people and its’ owner was belligerently delusional.

There was the time when I was pinned against a tree by 2 dogs barking menacingly. Paralysed by fear I feigned calm, clinging for dear life to me toddler. There was no owner in sight. When he finally arrived, I asked him to control his dogs. He cited the fact that they hadn’t actually bitten us, as evidence that they were “harmless”.

For irresponsible dog owners, allowing your dog to terrorise and intimidate others using public spaces is fine – as long as no blood is drawn.

It’s hard to have a rational conversation with those dog owners who are hostile to the notion that small children are allowed to be “out of control” (off a leash), but dogs aren’t. The truth is, if parents let their toddlers wander around sniffing peoples’ groins and defecating on beaches and parks - pretending not to notice, we’d be reported to social services.

The bottom line is, we know that although most dogs don’t attack, some do. Parents of small children should be aware of that risk, especially when responding to random encounters with strange dogs. Almost everyone I know can recount an incidence of “low level” dog biting, be it another dog in the park, or a child. Only the most serious cases are reported in the media.

On our rambles, we often chat to people with dogs who invariably encourage my child to stroke them. Although I’ve taught my son to be cautious around strange dogs, he’s developed his own strategy of dealing with these situations. He politely declines, saying he doesn’t play with strange dogs, only the ones he knows. They’ll invariably reassure him, “It’s alright, she’s perfectly safe”, to which he’ll reply, “Well, I don’t know you either so I’m afraid I can’t take your word for that”! 

Having grappled with this throughout my child’s infancy, I realise that my anxiety around dogs and small children wasn’t just a manifestation of an early trauma. It was also informed by facts and maternal instinct to protect my child from danger. I realised that my fear of dogs was not irrational. A docile family pet did attack my brother and other attacks, whilst not pervasive, do happen and, we know from the tragic, needless death of baby Archie this week, they can be fatal.

How many more babies must die before we review the Dangerous Dog Act and make it fit for purpose?

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